When I was a child, I identified with Luke Skywalker like thousands of other children. Unlike many of those kids, it wasn’t just because Luke was the brave, young hero. I sought out meaning from Luke Skywalker, because to my mind, both our fathers were evil. His father of course was Darth Vader, enemy to the Rebel Alliance and master of the Dark Side of the Force. My father was Joseph Lepczyk, a man who killed himself when I was six-years-old. Joe financially and emotionally scarred our family to the point where we never really recovered.
The smell of vinegar and hot water, a reminder of my mom and weekends cleaning before play. ∞
I stand on black
water, like a navigator
at night, maps aglow
in lantern light, as the stars
wink out one by one.
Not sure how well this poem captures what I’m trying to express. With the death of my mom, it’s been like the reference point by which I find my way disappeared. Does that come through?
It’s taken the death of my mom to realize that our childhoods belong to our parents. Those moments spent in their care are made into memories much vaster than the collection of images and feelings one may retain from when a person was three-years-old. Sometimes, it feels as if my childhood happened to another person as the remove seems so great, as I’ve revised and edited my memories into a version that fits with who I am today. But, those are the memories of adolescence and teen, not those of a toddler.
I remember breaking my arm at three-years-old. Sledding with my brothers and disobeying them. Going down the big hill. Hitting a tree. Walking home in tears. Arm bent at an unnatural angle.
I remember that Christmas. Opening a present that contained cars and a track. I’m not sure if I remember wearing the red, cowboy hat or just the memory of the pictures from that time: me with a bruised face, arm in a cast, smiling from the joy of Christmas, beneath a red, felt cowboy hat with white piping.
I have a memory that feels more like a feeling as if there is an after-image on the inside of my skull. It’s my brothers and me in the back of our dad’s white, Mercedes convertible with the scratchy bench seat. It’s of autumn leaves with the top down. Him taking sharp turns. Us asking him to. And our bodies pushing into one another. Pulled by a force outside the car.
I vaguely remember making my mom cry. Cutting all of the leaves off her plants in the greenhouse. She loved plants. It was her favorite room in the house. I don’t know if our dad was dead or alive then, or if the tension between my parents and his disinterest in family were at play.
I can’t ask for clarification.
The keeper of those memories is gone. I’m left with these holes and questions that must remain. Or, I’ll need to revise and edit on my own. Create a truth or accept ambiguity.
There is the memory of a birthday party, a friend’s party, and ketchup being poured on the boy’s head, by accident, as his mom tried to get the ketchup to come out faster, patting the bottom of the bottle, pounding it, until tears, a party ruined with laughter and embarrassment.
Memories from when I was five or six, before my dad died, of me and a neighbor friend hiding in the ditch and throwing rocks at cars as they drove by. Someone stopped. They got out. They chased us. I ran all the way home. Hid in the cabinet underneath a bathroom sink. My dad found me. Or maybe it was my mom. Maybe it is both of them separately, yet unified, both versions being correct.
I remember parts of our move to Traverse City. I think we looked at a house that had a playhouse in the basement, but that we all thought was creepy and possibly haunted. But, that could have been another move, the one from East Lansing to Haslett. What I do remember is holding my brother’s hand as we walked to school. I was in first grade. Some boys whom we would dislike from that day forward yelled faggot at us and threw snowballs.
Now that I’m a parent, I try not to take for granted the role I have in my children’s lives. They won’t remember the determination with which they approached crawling. How they used to call blueberries, bluebrees or bounce to Diana Ross. My own adult memory is not so great, but it will be there as a back up, a clarification if needed.
Was it you or Mom who took me to the emergency room late at night? I remember wearing my pajamas, you might say.
It was me. We drove there with the windows down. Your sister was a baby. Mom needed to stay home with her until your uncle came over. We were so scared. Your breathing sounded terrible. Your mom arrived before we went back to the hospital room. You laid on my chest in the hospital bed. You were upset they didn’t give you a popsicle. I can’t remember if they gave you a shot or not. They did an x-ray. You cried when the board that was propped behind you fell down and bumped your head. We took you home. You were better. You can ask your mom what else happened.
It was me. It wasn’t me. If we both wanted to hold you tight, does it matter who did?
Tears. Driving with the windows down. The sound of the wind in the car. My mom or dad holding me close. I wanted a popsicle, but maybe they didn’t have any? Strawberry was my favorite.
My mom’s piano was a source of comfort for her, as well as a source of income. When she purchased it a few years before my birth, she never thought she’d end up being a piano teacher. Our family lived in East Lansing. My mom and dad ran a small business auctioning rare coins. When my mom told me the story about the piano, I assumed it had always been in the family, that it was Grandpa’s and was passed down to Mom. My grandfather loved to play show tunes on their piano and had a fine voice as well.
No, my mom, said. It wasn’t Grandpa’s piano. It was a Saturday morning and I was up early. I just sat down with my cup of coffee and the newspaper when I spotted the ad in the classifieds. This was before Craigslist and I’d always take a look to see what was for sale. Your brothers were still asleep and I was so excited, because I knew it would sell fast.
I wondered, mom said, how early could I call them?
At this point, I think my mom left my brothers with our dad and went to look at the piano.
Mom said, it was covered up with a tarp in an old carriage house. I had to drive down an alley where I met a man and a woman. The piano was wonderful. It needed tuning, of course; but, it was exactly what I’d been looking for. I asked the two about the piano.
Well, the woman said, our grandparents bought the piano; but never played it. Our mom was in love with a jazz musician and our grandparents didn’t approve. They tried breaking them up and finally told our mom they’d buy her a grand piano if she ended things.
Did she, my mom asked?
I imagine the two smiling here. Perhaps, the man and the woman share a looking.
No, the woman said, the jazz musician is our father and Mom ran away with him to Chicago. Her parents had bought the piano, but just had it set in the carriage house when it was delivered. Never even came into the house. So, you interested?
How it was moved, who moved it, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that baby grand piano was an outlet for my mom. I’d wake up on a Saturday morning to the sounds of sonatas played with emotion, as if in the music she could either escape or reconcile the death of her husband, the slide from middle class to poverty, the weight of three boys that she alone needed to carry. At the time, I couldn’t have seen that. A child of seven or eight, I heard the power in the music and waited for the song to finish. Then I’d walk into the living room, the light from the picture window shone on my mom. It was like a spell ended. My mom returned from wherever she’d gone. Her arms around me, a feeling of warmth.
Sitting in the airport for a 6 am flight and feeling the most sad I’ve felt this whole trip. We scattered my mom’s ashes in the places that meant the most to her in the Upper Peninsula, the places where she could relax and breath easier. There were sad moments at times, but it wasn’t too bad.
Leaving Traverse City, I’m left wondering when I’ll be back. I have no idea. With my mom gone it feels like there is less of a connection to the place where I grew up. It’s more fragile.
I stopped by her house, our old house, on my way to the airport. The darkened house was overplayed with images of my mom sitting on her front steps, watching me go.
It’s sad leaving this beautiful place full of beaches, lakes, rivers and woods. It feels like home. But, will it always feel that way?
When I think about my mom, I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because my mom and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and like the characters in Marquez’s work, my mom seemed to have grown up in this time when the stories of relatives, and those who’ve died, continued on and interacted with the living. I sometimes think she was disappointed to have three sons, because a part of her was afraid those stories would die out in the hands of men, that women carried history better, as it was passed down from mother to daughter while pitting cherries in the kitchen for a pie.
I think of times my mom said she loved: summers in the upper peninsula, our boyish calls echoing out from a rowboat, while she sat reading next to Culhane Lake. Sitting out on our deck, night after night till Winter pushed us in, me, a boy, asking her questions in the dark. She, rocking in her chair, telling me why stars are so bright, how, to her, God was love, and that was enough, answers I’ve long since forgotten except for the feeling of being there with her, being in her steadying presence among the pines, listening to the crickets and her voice.
I think of how vividly my mom told me about a mismatched couple that lived in her neighborhood on the outskirts of Cincinnati, a man, a Frank, or a Gus, short, fat, and friendly, and his wife, tall and thin with a name like Alice. My mom told me how on hot days, they’d hang a beach towel on the fence to let the neighborhood kids know it was okay to come over and swim, and my mom would stand on her porch, clad in a bathing suit, towel in hand, waiting, waiting to see that sign.
And in that that spirit of people lost and those who live on, I’d like to share something my wrote about her best friend as a child.
“Miss Effie Jones”
Miss Jones taught me to observe Decoration Day. Both have sadly passed their time. The end of May now has a mish-mashed beginning excuse for a three day weekend and yet another excuse for blow-out sales of furniture and cars known as Memorial Day. My thoughts yearly wander back to an earlier time.
This year I found myself wondering if a person only really dies when the last person alive who remembers that soul vanishes. Effie Jones was a real person, still living on the fallow remnants of her Ohio valley pioneer family farm when I was a child. Initially when I was about three and our family moved across the rural county road from her house, she was a sprightly 70+ spinster caring for her father, Uncle Jack. He could entertain us all hour upon hour with his tall tales. He and my dad, a chemist by training, engaged in an annual summer gardening rivalry with my dad often begrudgingly conceding to Uncle Jack’s accumulated wisdom. In several years in his 90’s Uncle Jack died quietly. His daughter, Effie, had a small red brick house built next door and sold the balance of the property. She became my fast friend.
My mother was primarily a vegetable gardener. Miss Jones taught me about flowers. My mother was a harsh critic. Miss Jones thought I was just fine as I was. We made a good pair. Her eyesight was failing and together with my eyesight and her oversight we would walk up the road to the small hamlet on the state highway a quarter of a mile away. Once a year we went down the road.
Every May 30th we prepared for Decoration Day. I would pull my wagon across the road and I would help as she selected an abundance of flowers from her yard. Then we would set off, she, as always in a flowered dress and big straw hat, down the road, around the big bend and downhill until we reached a small country graveyard. We would climb up a small hill and “decorate” the graves of her relatives which stretched back before the Civil War in some instances. I would hear snippets of their lives as the flowers were thoughtfully selected. For the first several years she would pull out a handkerchief and wipe away the perspiration (ladies then never sweat) and we would continue on down the road, up a big hill to a second small cemetery and repeat the process. The last few years the second leg of the journey had become too far.
It was not a day commemorating war or veterans. It was not even a day for sadness. It was a time for loving remembrances. One day I went to her house after her nap as was my habit and she did not answer. I slowly went in. She did not wake up. I was ten when my best friend died.
Fifty-four years have passed since I lived there. I have no idea if the old cemeteries even survived the relentless suburban cruse of metropolitan Cincinnati. I am not a graveyard sort of person and my relatives are scattered in cemeteries in several states. Another Decoration Day has passed and I mentally lay my flowers on the memory of Effie Jones.
One conversation I had with my mom recently involved Japanese architecture, and the tokonoma, the place in a gathering room for displaying a special piece of artwork, and then rotating it with other artwork placed in storage. Since my mom’s death I’ve been thinking about that display of artwork, but in terms of memory. I’ve imagined this special place within myself to hold a memory of my mom, much like she held one of Miss Effie Jones these past 65 years. There are all of these moments and facets of Marianne, which we hold within ourselves and that we can display through stories and conversations. They offer a glimpse of Marianne’s beauty. And in recognition of that, I’ll share another piece of writing she sent me a few years ago. I had these sometimes, one way conversations with mom where I knew she was always reading what I wrote on Twitter. This one, Mom called:
“Twittering Life Away”
I have always had a fondness for novels. I suppose that has played into how I have conceived of my own life story. However I am the sole reader of that as yet unfinished work. As I get older I often long for the illusive continuity of such a work. The first awareness came when our family relocated when I was thirteen. Subsequent moves, deaths and misfortunes made my life a series of independent short stories with the parts never to interact and the story fragmented. I suppose that this is characteristic of most contemporary American lives. Yet it doesn’t seem to bother most people or else they just write it off with the catch-all “that’s life.”
I genuinely miss a life of shared memories. My life, as are probably most persons’, is a mixed-bag of good, bad, comic and sad but without context. It is with enormous loss that I try to go through belongings and realize that they have value only because of the stories and memories they evoke. Some are odds and ends already several generations old while others are unique to my life. My head often feels filled to capacity with tales passed on to me from the old ladies of the neighborhood where I spent my childhood.
Those join the ones passed along by my few older relatives. These will all vanish one day. Does no one else mourn lives fragmented like this? It would be easy to dismiss this as the musing of an old lady, yet it has defined my entire conscious being.
But I am at a loss to comprehend the way people live now. I’m still stuck regretting a life of short stories while a whole new genre is sweeping through our experiences. Lives are now conceived and recorded and passed around to acquaintances of the moment to lines of 140 characters. How well will stories lived thus age? We have moved from long lasting marriages and friendships through serial relationships to one-liner friends and hook-ups. Twitter obits must be next.
Marianne had a wry sense of humor, and she trended toward the dark at times, as she struggled to relocate to Traverse City and raise my brothers and I alone. A lot of you will say that Chris, Peter, and I are a testament to the life Marianne lived, to the kind of parent she was. Our mother made the best of a bad situation. She loved us. She taught us to live a moral life, to ask questions, and be curious. She impressed upon us to treat others with respect and to see value and beauty all around us. She was kind and generous, always making more room at her table for our friends. Marianne was a keen reader and she passed that love of books onto us. She sometimes remarked that after we all got settled in life with careers and families that she could rest. She was so happy of all we accomplished. She enjoyed watching Peter and Alejandro over the years, she was proud of the patient father he’d become. Mom liked chatting with Olivia and Izzy on the phone and her long convervations with Chris. Mom was happy that she got to meet Stella and Naomi in April, and have all of us together. “She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them,” to again refer back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I’m so sad that she is gone and will only exist in stories for my girls. But, I hope that beyond my tears they can see this image of Marianne in a rocking chair on her deck, wearing a sundress, with a smile on her face as she eats the first cherry tomato from her garden; or playing sonatas on her piano, Mozart ringing out in the neighborhood; the way she drove our old Dodge Caravan down sandy two-tracks in the Upper Peninsula, just curious to see what was around the next curve as the bracken fern pushed down and the tires humped over roots. In that quest for a novelistic life, Marianne felt disappointed by the format of her life, but though we did not sit in the same kitchen as she and those old ladies from the neighborhood, I think my mom overlooked the richness of her short stories, the ways in which she touched so many people through music, and conversation. If she could look across this room today, she would see that.
It feels like Pluto no longer being a planet, something that was always so, which should be so, suddenly being gone. ∞
Driving to Michigan. Stopped for lunch. ∞